Conquering the Dinnertime Overwhelm: My meal planning strategy to eat healthier and save time
If I’m being honest, one of the things that has consistently caused me stress is dinnertime. I felt so much pressure to cook healthy meals, knowing how important good nutrition is for health, energy, brain development, etc. But dinnertime was a double-edged sword. I loved the idea of it, but in reality, this is how it usually played out:
Me, tired after a long day at work, but feeling hopeful, thinking I’d come up with the perfect, healthy meal my family will eat. Then as soon as someone asks, “what’s for dinner?” all hell breaks loose because one or both of my kids recreates the scene from The Exorcist because I made real chicken instead of the dinosaur-shaped chicken product they saw on TV. And it devolves from there. Crying (them always, me sometimes). Swearing (me always…though I try to keep it under my breath). My husband walking on eggshells afraid I will snap any minute and making a big production of “you have the best mom ever! Isn’t this delicious?!”. Repeat. Every. Night.
I was so sick of this pattern and the constant stress it caused me and the family. So, I changed a few things which has vastly improved family dinner meltdowns. And when they do happen, my emotional response is so much better. And, it saves so much time! You can meal plan and prep in less than 3 hours per week!
These are my guiding principles when it comes to dinner:
I choose mostly whole foods based and not from a crinkly package.
I pick meals that I like and that have the potential of being palatable to my kids. I used to ask for input from my family, but quite honestly, I rarely do that anymore because kids = unpredictable.
Then I stop thinking about it. Full Stop. I will never please everyone, so I’ve stopped focusing on it. They won’t starve. And, in the cases I make something truly egregious, I offer my kids an easy alternative* (more on this later).
So that helps with some of the emotional burden of cooking dinner, but there is still the logistics of it all. Enter meal planning and prepping.
Step One: Set Realistic Expectations
If you rarely cook, don’t start out with trying to make dinner 5 nights this week. Pick 1 or 2 meals and make extra so you can have a decent lunch the next day or, ideally, have it for dinner again later in the week.
Step Two (30 minute): Organize
Decide on the couple of meals you plan to make. Your meals don’t need to be elaborate. You can repeat them. Again, remember the actual experience of family dinner and not the one of your dreams. Print out or save the recipes. Add the items to your grocery list. Or, use my preferred method of putting items directly in your Instacart shopping cart so you can also avoid the grocery store altogether.
Step Three (30 min – 2 hours): Gather Food
Refer to step two. Go to the store or order groceries. For me, ordering the majority of my groceries to be delivered has become such a time and energy saver. If I need to stop at a specialty store for something, I can just run in instead of spending 2 hours at the store. If you’re working traditional office hours, this will likely take place on the weekend. But if another day fits into your schedule better, go for it.
Step Four (15 min): Schedule Meals
Make a calendar (mental or physical). Decide which meals you’ll have on which nights. Consider the nights that may be typically hectic with kids’ activities, meetings or any other obligations you may have. Then think about what the easiest meals would be to make on those nights. For me, that often means something I can put in the Instant Pot like chili or soup. And, do yourself a favor. Just double the recipe so you can have it another night.
Step Five (1.5 - 3 hours): Meal Prep
Be your own sous chef. Doing the bulk of the meal prep at once will save you SO much time both cooking and cleaning up!! I find it can be hard to get motivated for this step. Just keep reminding yourself it will make the weeknights easier. I promise.
Cook grains, like rice, ahead of time for the week, then refrigerate and use them later in the week (add a little water when reheating). Most grains will keep for 3-5 days in the fridge.
Be sure to have food defrosted if you’re using any frozen items like meat, chicken, fish, etc. Check what you need for the next day, the night before.
Chop your veggies on the weekend or the night before to prep ahead of time and place in storage containers in the fridge. Also, decide which frozen veggies you can use instead of fresh (especially for stews, soups and some crock pot meals).
Make any marinades, dressings, spice mixes or sauces in advance to save time on those busier nights.
Don’t be a hero. Buy the pre-chopped onions or the marinated fish/meat from the deli. It will definitely save time and energy. And, though it may be a little more expensive, chances are it won’t go to waste like chicken you meant to marinate and prepare, but forgot about it until after the expiration date.
I’ll be honest – I fought this for a long time because it just seemed too time consuming, but now that I do it on a regular basis, it’s so much faster and easier.
Once you start implementing a weekly meal plan, you’ll notice you feel less stressed over the dinnertime rush.
Oh, one more little secret. If my kids start whining/fighting/yelling while I’m cooking dinner, I put my earbuds in and listen to a podcast so I don’t have to hear it. It can almost make the experience enjoyable.
P.S. – here are my alternative options when my kids are picky:
I rarely cook 2 meals. If the kids really hate what I made, they have the alternative of peanut butter and jelly, or the healthiest version of food they like. I’ve had to really lower my expectations here for my own sanity, but you do you.
Whole grain or corn quesadilla with guacamole, carrots
Hummus, whole grain pita bread and sliced veggie
Chicken nuggets. Ugh. At least try to get the healthiest ones.